When the American writer James Baldwin enjoined artists to “disturb the peace”, he could have been speaking to Nalini Malani. Now in her 74th year, the Indian artist has created an oeuvre that weaves lyrical poetry with gritty news reportage, ancient myth with contemporary politics. Viewers of her animated, immersive installations are plunged into a constantly shifting world where the Hindu goddess Sita resides next to her Greek sisters Medea and Cassandra and quotations from radical US poet Adrienne Rich share wall space with those of Marxist Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
Although her politics — feminist, environmental, social — are fiercely present, Malani’s gift for channelling them through radiant, unpredictable visual imagery ensures she never tumbles into didacticism.
Malani’s practice has been evolving since the 1960s, when she started to experiment with different media including photography, film and abstract painting. Since then her repertoire has branched out into wall drawing and painting, performance, theatre, animation and video. Shown all over the world, Malani’s work is in leading collections including Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi, Tate Modern in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Now Malani is due to unveil her first commission in the UK. Entitled Can You Hear Me?, it encompasses 84 animations made between 2017 and 2020 that will play across the walls of the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. When I catch up with her on a videocall, Malani describes Can You Hear Me? as “an accordion notebook, which is splayed out, not rectangular, with images overlapping, sort of orchestrated but not in synch.”
Often, she says, the images are triggered “when I read something that engages me intensely, such as the incarceration of intellectuals [in India].”
Her words refer to the bleak political situation in her home country, where the Hindu nationalist government has enacted harsh laws against Muslim people and imprisoned dozens of activists, journalists and intellectuals. Can You Hear Me? responds both to this oppression and to other abusive systems of power across the world.
Currently in Amsterdam, where she and her husband, who is Dutch, have a home, Malani’s main residence and studio are in Mumbai. She was born in Karachi, then part of undivided India, but the upheaval of Partition saw Malani and her family obliged to move, first to Kolkata, and then to Mumbai.
“The aura of Partition has been a shadow over my life” is her description of an event that nearly derailed her artistic ambitions at the outset. Her parents were far from narrow-minded; her father, a lawyer, came from a Theosophist family, her mother was a Sikh and their home was somewhere the Guru Granth Sahib shared space with texts by Annie Besant and Krishnamurti.
But given the precariousness of their lives in post-Partition India, Malani’s father was anxious when she chose art school over university. After “a huge fight”, he accepted her decision on the basis that she specialised in medical illustrations, which he considered a “legitimate profession”.
But Malani soon found more creative pursuits. The publications office of the Times of India was located next to the Sir JJ School of Art where she was studying. “They asked me to illustrate short stories,” she recalls. The job introduced her to a new generation of post-independence writers. “I learnt from the way they chose characters from the Indian epics, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharat, and placed them in a contemporary setting.” Noticing how that past-meets-present cocktail appealed to a wide public underscored Malani’s burgeoning awareness of how “important it is to communicate in art” with as many people as possible.
That democratic impulse has driven her ever since. She developed her ideas through experiments with photography and film, nourished by a stint at VIEW (Vision Exchange Workshop), the avant-garde group in Mumbai pivotal to the development of new media art in India. “In India, a moving image attracts much more than a painting, which is considered highbrow,” she explains.
As one of the few women artists practising at that time, Malani faced prejudice, and she transferred to Paris for a spell in the early 1970s. There she was inspired by the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and progressive film-makers such as Chris Marker.
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Her desire to connect to different audiences dovetailed with her growing disdain for an art world driven more by profits than principles, and the way the artistic value of a work was equated to its commercial price. She began to make wall drawings and paintings that were destined for erasure. “That way there’s no product. You take away a memory.”
In 1992, she unveiled what she describes as an “all-encompassing wall-drawing project” entitled City of Desire for a solo show in Mumbai that protested against the rise of rightwing Hindu nationalism. As she worked on the drawings, she rubbed out elements to redraw them. “The erasure left a trace of the previous drawing,” she recalls. Intrigued by this palimpsest effect, she started to make stop motion animations. The result is that her installations are peopled by delicate, evanescent figures that surface and sink like ghostly swimmers, lending her work the air of intimate, mysterious dreamscapes.
That lyrical iconography is tempered by intense sociopolitical engagement. When I ask about the title of the Whitechapel commission, Can You Hear Me?, Malani responds with the tragic account of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Kashmir two years ago, by men who dragged her to a Hindu temple — a kind of “ethnic cleansing, written on the body of this little girl . . . Her parents lived nearby but they were unable to hear her cries for help.” In the work, the figure of a young girl, often skipping or playing, recurs like a vulnerable anchor to a dystopian panorama of texts and images that evoke a world blighted by violence both social and environmental.
Does Malani believe artists can make a difference in such dire circumstances? “Yes, if there is a concerted wider cultural movement of many artists of different disciplines speaking,” she replies. “Look at the way [the Black Lives Matter movement] quoted James Baldwin, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. It’s people’s voices that will make a difference.”
From September 23, whitechapelgallery.org
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